Books

Memoir of a rabbi who barely mentions God

Confessions of a Rabbi
by Jonathan Romain, Biteback, £12.99

The author, a well-known broadcaster and rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, has written a sympathetic and humorous account of life among his 800 households, with the odd problems he encounters in his role.

He sounds unfazed by them and offers generally sensible advice, taking the view (as a non-Orthodox rabbi) that most behaviour is “fine so long as no one else is being harmed”.

Deeply committed to “libertarian values”, he is relaxed about euthanasia, abortion and other moral dilemmas. He had an Orthodox upbringing but then joined Reform Judaism, preferring “its attempt to marry tradition and change”. He sees his synagogue no longer as a “house of prayer” but as a community centre. Indeed, building community is what he believes his rabbinical task is about.

When I reached the end I was puzzled by the fact that God was hardly mentioned. Then I read Romain’s “Last word”, which enlightened me. “Readers may have noticed with some surprise that … the word ‘God’ has not been a dominating feature,” he writes, explaining that he has “not been interested in expounding theology [but] instead I have been immersed in people and the issues they face”.

Romain also chooses not to speculate on the afterlife, admitting that Jews “have largely been content to say ‘we don’t know’ and leave it at that”. What concerns him is how his congregation live their lives in the here and now. I think he is probably accurate in observing that a lapsed Jew “is always much more Jewish than a lapsed Christian is Christian. It has to do with roots and culture”. This observation would not necessarily be true of lapsed Catholics, who often come from roots and a culture every bit as powerful as a Jewish one.

Commenting on the movement Jews for Jesus, Romain thinks that if you regard Jesus as a fine teacher and gifted individual, you are still Jewish. But if you believe he is the Son of God and Saviour of the world, “it means you are Christian”. That sounds reasonable. I can understand why he is a popular communicator.